Commentary, Experiences

Volunteering: The paradox at the beginning of an aid career

As commencement has come and gone and the Class of 2014 is entering or returning to the working world, I’ve been thinking more about how people begin careers in international development. Most often, by my guess, they get their start by volunteering, often at schools or orphanages, during post-high school “gap years,” undergraduate summers, or between college and graduate school.

I began that way myself, starting with volunteering at a small NGO in Uganda during my final summer of college and later serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Rwanda. I’d estimate that at least half of the students who studied development in my graduate program had similar experiences.

Aspiring development professionals aren’t the only people who engage in volunteer work abroad, of course. In fact, the majority of short-term volunteers are not probably future aid workers, but rather other students or people on vacation from their regular jobs.

In this day and age, when anyone with the money to travel can land a volunteering gig in a developing country, volunteers too often have little to no technical knowledge, project design or management experience, language skills, or cultural understanding. I myself am not a teacher but have taught English abroad. I know people who aren’t construction workers who build houses in developing countries every summer. I’ve heard of Peace Corps Volunteers with no medical training delivering babies. I’ve talked to missionaries who visited Bangkok’s brothels to persuade sex workers to leave, only to remember upon arriving that they didn’t speak Thai. A missionary in Rwanda once asked me whether the country had gorillas or guerrillas. The list goes on.

Many poignant articles have illustrated the uselessness, and even harmfulness, of poorly-conceived volunteer programs, especially those at orphanages and schools, which seem to be the most common. There’s no question in my mind that short-term, untrained volunteers are often ineffective at best, and I think most aid professionals would agree.

The thing is, it’s difficult to get a first job in development without having prior experience, which can often only be gained through volunteering. In fact, many (most?) aid professionals, like myself, got their foot in the door by doing volunteer work.

The aid industry is quite odd in this way: professionals ridicule volunteer work, but won’t hire new people who haven’t done it. This is just another way in which the aid system is broken.

You can’t get a “professional” job until you’ve gained experience by doing something the industry considers ineffective and antithetical to its actual goals. It’s a classic case of “you need experience to get experience,” and volunteer opportunities allow people to fill in that gap.

Part of the problem here is that students seeking careers in international development are frequently oblivious to the problems of volunteering, as I was when I volunteered as an undergraduate. I didn’t realize that these problems are widely recognized and well-documented. With the explosion of the Internet and social media, though, more and more young people access, and participate in, the conversation in the field than before. Many of the undergraduates I know today have a far more critical perspective on aid than I did as a college student, which I think is thanks largely to Twitter and to blogs like these, which didn’t exist when I was in college.

But still, colleges send their students off on ill-conceived volunteer programs every summer and praise them for working in orphanages and schools and doing other jobs they’re unqualified for and that could be done by a local. Schools should provide more guidance to students looking for volunteer positions and encourage them to carefully consider the impacts of their actions on local populations, rather than blindly praising them for “doing.”

Ultimately, it is hiring managers who are responsible for, and positioned to, bringing an end to the paradox of starting an aid career. As a nice guest post at How Matters recently discussed, they need to look beyond the simple fact of having volunteer experience and question how applicants perceived their experience and what they learned from it.

But changes in the system will take time and may never become the norm. Meanwhile, what should today’s students and aspiring aid workers do, when their institutions encourage volunteering, current professionals in this field started this way, and even entry-level jobs in development often require it? People who want experience abroad aren’t going to stop volunteering, but here are a few suggestions to encourage conscientious volunteering:

  • There’s lots of advice out there on how to volunteer effectively. Follow it.
  • Before volunteering, study development as intensively as you can. Try cross-registering or doing independent studies if need be. Read blogs and follow people in the industry on Twitter.
  • Study abroad in a developing country before going abroad to volunteer.
  • Try to do volunteer work that is supplementary to what already exists, rather than taking over existing positions or creating parallel ones. (One way might be to provide after-school tutoring or English conversation practice instead of working as a teacher.) Supplementary work allows volunteers to add value and is less disruptive.
  • Advocate for better practices within the organization you volunteer at: talk to the leaders about the need to replace international volunteers with local workers.
  • Longer-term volunteers are usually more useful, so stay as long as you can and volunteer with the same organization the whole time.
  • Don’t volunteer at an orphanage in Cambodia. Just don’t.

Finally, I’d love to hear from aid professionals who started their career without volunteering, so please share your stories and advice in the comments. Anyone?


Reflections & Ramblings Of A Development Undergrad

I have to admit that I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with being an undergraduate development student. First of all, you ask a lot of questions and get very few answers. Second, you are trained to be so critical of the development ‘industry’ that you end up not really knowing why you’re there in the first place (Karen Attiah wrote a great blog on ‘International Development Disillusionment’ here). And third, you probably have to defend your choice of doing a Development Studies degree more than with any other subject, which quite frankly, can start to grate a bit after a year or two.

A lot of people probably see undergraduate development students as young people whose lives were changed on a gap year trip to meet kids in ‘Africa’. Certainly, the automatic assumption that my degree is about “charities and Africa and stuff, right?” is not an uncommon one. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are perhaps a few of those students around, but most of us are actually just young people who want to understand the world better. A development studies degree doesn’t teach you how to “do” development, it teaches you to think about why there is such a thing as development (or the lack of it), and because of that, I believe quite strongly that Development Studies is a valuable undergraduate degree regardless of whether or not you actually then go into ‘development’.

It took me two “gap years” after school (working at a national newspaper, not on a beach in Thailand) before I actually decided what I wanted to study at undergraduate level.

A social scientist at heart, I considered various options of studying Economics, Geography and Law before deciding wholeheartedly on a Development Economics degree at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London. Even then, by second year I re-titled my degree to Development Studies and Economics (which might sound like a negligible difference, but it meant I was exempt from quantitative methods and econometrics, happy days). With the new title, my degree structure became more flexible and allowed me to take modules from other disciplines such as Politics and Film Studies. To any student out there in the midst of a development degree, or thinking about doing one, I can’t recommend this highly enough: the more diverse and multi-disciplinary you can make your development degree, the better.

One of the things I love most about the BA Development Studies degree structure at SOAS is that you can’t do ‘straight’ development studies – you can only combine it with a second subject such as politics, anthropology, Swahili, religious studies, law, or, as in my case, economics. It’s a structure that I would recommend keeping an eye out for at other universities, and if not, at least look closely at the extent to which you will be able to tailor your degree and/or take elective modules from other disciplines. At the same time, you will need to also demonstrate in some way how your interests are focused: whether that be by concentrating your electives in a particular field (in my case it was film and media), becoming an active member of particular societies or groups at university (for example, I interned at the university radio station), or narrowing your academic interests at postgraduate level.

A friend of mine who is also graduating this year, said to me the other day “I have no skills! I’m a jack-of-all-trades but master of none!”

Although I can easily relate to her sentiment, I think that the multidisciplinary nature of a development studies degree can easily be turned into an advantage if you design it to your strengths and interests.

Development as a concept is enormously challenged and contested, but in my view that is by no means a reason to avoid studying it at either undergraduate or postgraduate level (I’ll be talking about postgrads in my next blog). If anything, I would argue that development studies is more relevant than ever given its ever-expanding mandate in the current global environment.

Just the other day I was at a talk with a UNHCR representative on the Syrian refugee crisis response, who said that the international community needed to start to “think more developmentally” in how it deals with forced migration and refugees. If you start to think of Development Studies less as a way to learn how to ‘do’ development, and more as a way of learning to ‘think’ differently about development, then I hope you’ll find it as valuable and rewarding a degree as I have.